by Frank Severn
Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness.
Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples. ‘The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field. He called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every disease and sickness ….These twelve Jesus sent out….(Matt. 9:35-37; 10:1-7)
Jesus looked at the multitudes, and he saw their lost condition (sheep without a shepherd). His response was to command prayer for harvest workers. In Chapter 10, Jesus sent out those he commanded to pray. It is the same principle he followed in announcing his Great Commission: “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Therefore go make disciples of all nations….” (Matt. 28:18b-19a)
How should we respond to the multitudes of lost people who have not heard about Christ, who are “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd”?
Studies have shown a growing ambivalence among evangelicals concerning those who have never heard about Christ. James Davison Hunter, in his important book, Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation, studied the beliefs among faculty and students at 10 evangelical liberal arts colleges and eight seminaries. The most frightening statistic to me was the large percentage who were unsure about the eternal destiny of those who have never heard about Christ. Especially striking was the percentage of faculty who waffled on the question. The question asked in the survey was: “Yes or No — ‘The only hope for heaven is through faith in Jesus Christ EXCEPT for those who have not heard of Jesus Christ.’” Thirty-two percent of the students and 44 percent of the faculty responded with a Yes.
We live in a pluralistic society that rejects absolute beliefs. Faith and religion are considered purely personal matters. We do not like exclusive claims. The Bible presents some very exclusive claims. Let’s begin with just two of the many exclusive claims of Christ.
I am the gate; and whoever enters through me will be saved” (John 10:9). “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
Listen to the word of the apostles Peter and John. Peter stated,
Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12).
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son (John 3:16-18).
Conclusion: Salvation is found only in Christ.
But what about those who die without hearing of Christ? Can God be just in condemning them when they have never heard? This is not an easy question. I am reminded of a beloved brother in Marinduque, an island in the Philippines. He had been a member of the Aglipian church (a nationalistic breakoff from the Roman Catholic Church) but sensed that something was missing. When the Jehovah’s Witnesses came to town, he listened to their teaching but sensed it was not right. He also checked out the Iglesia ni Christo (an indigenous Philippine cult that denies the deity of Christ) but again could not find the truth he was looking for. When our missionaries came to town and had tent meetings, he attended and heard the gospel of Christ. God showed him that this was the truth, and he believed. Now he wanted to know what would happen to his loved ones who passed away before they heard the gospel. Questions like this have driven many to seek some“wider hope” for salvation beyond explicit faith in Christ.
Evangelical circles are giving this subject considerable attention. I fear that increasing numbers of Christians in North America have an unarticulated belief in Karl Barth’s position that Christ’s finished work was efficacious for all and that all will eventually be saved.1
Recently I received a first draft of a statement: “Proclaiming Jesus Christ as the one universal Savior and Lord in a world of religious and secular pluralism.” This excellent position paper drafted by the World Evangelical Fellowship Theological Consultation in London in April, 1996, contained one worrisome paragraph, which was later removed from the final draft: “There is not a consensus among evangelicals regarding the possibility of salvation by grace through faith, of those who are incapable of explicit faith in Christ, whether because of a physical incapacity or because of a lack of knowledge.” Even though this statement was removed from the final draft, it illustrates the growing movement away from what was almost a universal evangelical consensus.
The traditional orthodox position, with which I concur, is spelled out well by Millard J. Erickson.
1. All humans are sinners, by nature and by choice, and are therefore, guilty and under divine condemnation.
2. Salvation is only through Christ and His atoning work.
3. Belief is necessary to obtain the salvation achieved by Christ. Therefore, Christians and the church have a responsibility to tell unbelievers the good news about Jesus Christ.
4. Adherents of other religions, no matter how sincere their beliefs or how intense their religious activity, are spiritually lost apart from Christ.
5. Physical death brings to an end the opportunity to exercise saving faith and accept Jesus Christ. The decisions made in this life are irrevocably fixed at death.
6. At the great final judgment, all humans will be separated on the basis of their relationship to Christ during this life. Those who have believed in Him will spend eternity in heaven, in everlasting joy and reward in God’s presence. Those who have not accepted Him will experience hell, a place of unending suffering, where they will be eternally separated from God.2
The “wider hope” position has several variations. All would believe that salvation is found in Christ. All who are saved are saved solely on the basis of Christ’s atoning work. However, some believe that people may be saved by implicit faith in God rather than by explicit faith in Christ, especially among those who have never heard about Christ. In this view, there may be people who are “Godfearers,” who have lived according to the revelation they have received. They believe in God and would have believed in Christ if they had the opportunity. These are like the Old Testament saints, Job, and the disciples of John the Baptist in Acts 19. This view holds that the character of God (justice, mercy, and love) demands a broader hope. How can a just God condemn people for not believing what they have not heard?3 According to this view, the possibility of some being saved by implicit faith does not negate the fact that the normal means is the faith response to the proclamation of the gospel, which demands explicit faith.
Others who hold to a “wider hope” state that explicit faith in Christ is necessary, but “the unevangelized are given an opportunity to encounter Jesus Christ as Savior after death if not before it.”4 This view sees 1 Peter 3:19-20 and 4:6 as biblical precedent.
Another position within evangelicalism postulates that only those who trust in Christ in this life will be saved; however, those who do not come to salvation, particularly those who have never heard, will not suffer endless, painful punishment. Their punishment will be annihilation.5
Is explicit faith in Christ necessary for salvation, or is implicit faith in God sufficient?
Perhaps the most direct answer to the question is found in the great treatise on salvation—the book of Romans. I believe Romans waswritten to lay a theological foundation for Paul’s missionary activity among the Gentiles. Paul wanted to go to Rome, not to lay new foundations, but to gather support and personnel from the church at Rome for his missionary thrust into Spain (Rom. 1:11-13 and 15:23, 24).
ARE THE HEATHEN LOST?
Are all sinners? Paul’s answer is an unequivocal Yes. Chapter 1:18-32 gives a picture of the direction of the human heart. There is not an evolution toward goodness but a devolution toward depravity because man rejects God. God has revealed himself in creation. While this revelation is not salvific, it is sufficient to cause men to acknowledge and seek the Creator. Mankind has turned from the Creator to worship self and the creation.
Chapter 2 answers the question about those who are “moral and good” in the eyes of the world. Paul’s argument here is that God places a “moral law” (conscience) in the heart of man.
When Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them (Rom. 2:14-15).
Paul focuses on the justice of God’s judgment. God’s judgment will be impartial, fair, and just. He will judge according to men’s work. However, as Paul concludes the argument in chapter 3, it is clear that God’s judgment will be just because man’s works will judge him—”all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.”
Chapter 2 also deals with the Jew, who has the law and the special revelation of God. Paul concludes that those who have the law, break the law, and, therefore, are no better than those without the law with regard to salvation.
Rom. 3:9: “We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin.”
Rom. 3:23: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
The argument up to this point relates to the justice of God and the depravity of man. Now Paul turns to the key question. How can a sinner become righteous before a holy God? How can a person be saved?
But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies the man who has faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:21-26, emphasis added).
NOW THE QUESTION…
Is it possible for anyone living after the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus to be saved apart from explicit personal faith in Christ? Paul’s answer is No. Listen to his argument in Romans 10:11-15:
Everyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame. For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. How then can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.
While Romans 10 primarily deals with the rejection by Israel of her Messiah, Paul is communicating universal truth. The gospel must be preached in order for people to hear and believe.
Salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Paul puts theburden on the church to send preachers to those who have never heard so that they can believe and be saved. God’s ordained means of bringing men to faith is through their encounter with the gospel preached.
Therefore, the reality of the lostness of men and the understanding of God’s plan to bring the gospel to those who have never heard is at the heart of missions. The Scriptures declare that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes on Him should not perish” (John 3:16). The Scriptures also declare that faith comes by hearing. “How shall they hear without someone preaching to them? How shall they preach unless they are sent?” (Rom. 10: 14b-15a).
Returning to our text, Matthew 9:36 says of Jesus, “When he saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (the essence of lostness). His solution was to ask the disciples to pray for laborers to be sent. In the very next chapter, he sent the very ones he had asked to pray. Jesus’ solution to lostness was to send bearers of good news to the lost.
The problem of the lostness of men is not the justice of God. God has sent his Son. God has demonstrated his love. The problem is the church’s lack of obedience. Paul wanted to convince the church at Rome of the uniqueness of the gospel and the need to take it into regions that had never heard.
Can God reveal himself to those who sincerely desire to know him apart from the preaching of the gospel? No one should limit what God can do. The question is, how has God declared he will reveal himself? Hebrews 1:1 gives a clear answer: “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” Paul speaks about God’s dealings with the pagan world in Acts 17:30:
In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.
1. Salvation is only found in Jesus Christ. Salvation is based solely on faith in Christ’s finished work on our behalf.
2. Faith is necessary for salvation.
3. Faith is only possible when men and women have heard the gospel and have been moved by the Holy Spirit to believe.
4. God’s ordained means of bringing people to faith is the proclamation of the gospel. (Rom. 10:14-17, 1 Cor. 1:18-21). As 1 Corin-thians 1:21 says, “…God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.”
5. While we dare not limit what a sovereign God can do, we can safely conclude that the only revealed hope for those who have never heard is to go and preach the gospel to them. Every New Testament example of those who were seeking God is that God enabled the message of the gospel to reach them through his messengers (i.e., Cornelius, the Ethiopian eunuch, and the disciples of John).
We have no example in the biblical revelation (after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ) of anyone coming to faith apart from an encounter with the gospel. Therefore, it behooves us to get the gospel to all men. We, as Paul, are debtors to both Jew and Greek. While, in God’s sovereign mercy and justice, he may reveal himself and his gospel though extraordinary means, we have no revealed assurance that anyone will ever be saved apart from hearing the gospel through the preaching of his sent, weak human vessels.
How shall we deal with God’s justice regarding those who have never heard?
God’s judgment is righteous. He has left man without excuse. The Scriptures show that those who are seeking will be given further revelation. In every post-resurrection example, that further revelation culminated with a messenger being sent with the gospel. Would Cornelius, the Ethiopian eunuch, and the disciples of John the Baptist have been saved if they had died before theyheard of Christ? That is a “what if” speculation. After Christ’s ascension, we do not have one biblical example of anyone coming to faith without explicit faith in Christ.
How shall we deal with God’s justice with regard to infants, aborted babies, and those who are mentally disabled who do not have the capacity of faith?
I believe in a just, holy, and loving God who does all things well. It would be consonant with His character if he so sovereignly wills that those who cannot believe are covered by the blood of Christ and, therefore, saved solely on the basis of grace. That is my hope. However, I have little direct, biblical evidence for such hope apart from the revealed character of God. I leave that question with the Lord. I would affirm the statement by John Piper that “apart from a knowledge of him (Christ), none who has the ability to know will be saved.”6
We must see how our Lord viewed the multitude of lost people in his day. He was moved with compassion for them. A true understanding of the lostness of men and women apart from Christ should break our hearts. It is a truth that makes us weep. We need to follow the command of our Lord to pray for laborers for his harvest. The response to the lostness is prayer for workers and then responding in obedience to God’s call to go.
The tragedy of our day is that while we debate the subject of the “lostness of the heathen,” thousands, yes millions, of people live in neighborhoods, villages, cities, and tribes where they cannot hear the gospel because no Christian speaks their language, nor is close enough to tell them. In fact, almost half of the world’s 5.6 billion people are in that situation. Today, as in no other time in history, we have the real potential of reaching the ends of the earth with the gospel. Let’s do it!
1. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Edinburgh: T.F.T. Clark, 1957), 2:2, pp. 145-181.
2. Millard J. Erickson, “The State of the Questions” in Through No Fault of Their Own: The Fate of Those Who Have Never Heard, ed. William V. Crockett and James G. Sigountos (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1991), pp. 23, 24.
3. Bruce Demarest, General Revelation: Historical Views and Contemporary Issues (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), pp. 253-262.
4. Clark Pinnock, “The Finality of Jesus Christ in a World of Religions,” in Christian Faith and Practice in the Modern World: Theology from an Evangelical Point of View, ed. Mark A. Noll and David Wells (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), pp. 160-164.
5. John R.W. Stott, “Judgment and Hell,” in David Edwards and John R.W. Stott Evangelical Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialog (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1988), pp. 312-329.
6. John Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1993), p. 140.
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